Ocean State: Behind the scenes


by John Perilli

Political battles are fought just as much inside the legislative chambers as outside. This is especially true in Rhode Island, where our small size spins a tight web around politics at all levels, melding state-level affairs with municipal concerns and small local advocacy operations with powerful interest groups. Some operatives, however, wield more power than the rest and command the attention of every politician in the state. That said, here are the six most powerful non-elected players in Rhode Island politics.

Edwin Pacheco – The current chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party has lofty ambitions. His party controls 69 out of 75 seats in the Rhode Island House and 32 out of 38 in the Senate, one of the strongest party majorities in the country. Recently, he announced that he may run for Secretary of State in 2014, but between now and then, he will need to keep his visibility up and push for some Democratic victories in the state legislature, most importantly same-sex marriage. He served as a state representative of Burrillville from 2004 to 2010, so he isn’t short of friends in the State House. Look for Pacheco to be a vocal presence around Rhode Island these next two years.

Ray Sullivan – He’s the executive director of Marriage Equality Rhode Island and another former state representative. With a second battle on same-sex marriage forthcoming in the state legislature next year, no interest group will have more of the spotlight than MERI. This past election cycle, his organization helped add Democrats Adam Satchell (D-West Warwick), Ryan Pearson (D-Cumberland), and Catherine Cool Rumsey (D-Exeter) to the marriage equality bloc in the Senate, where the fight will be most bitter. Victory for same-sex marriage is still far from guaranteed, though, so expect Sullivan to be lobbying on the front lines during the 2013 session.

Catherine Taylor – A longtime friend of the Chafees, she was the highest Republican vote-earner in the 2010 statewide elections, coming within 1.2 percent of unseating Democratic Secretary of State Ralph Mollis. Currently, she is the state’s director of elderly affairs, and Rhode Island Republicans would do well to tap her credibility with seniors and retirees two years from now. She wouldn’t run against Lincoln Chafee, but would certainly have his backing should she decide to run for lieutenant governor. She’s one of the most electable Republicans in the state right now, waiting for another chance.

Frank Anzeveno – The chief of staff for Speaker of the House Gordon Fox (D-Providence) is one of the most influential insiders on Smith Hill. As the last checkpoint for bills that the Speaker sees, he has the magnetic power of keeping the Democratic caucus in line. If anyone speaks out against leadership, they answer to him. With such a large caucus, defection is a distinct possibility, so Anzeveno will have to hold everything together to ensure a productive legislative session next year. The GOP will be back with a chip on its shoulder in 2014 and Democrats will want to avoid backlash.

Tom Coderre – Frank Anzeveno’s State Senate counterpart, he serves as chief of staff to Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed (D-Newport and Jamestown). Next year, the heart of the struggle over same-sex marriage will take place in the Senate, and the decision of whether to vote on it or not could come down to him. Additionally, his influence over municipal relief packages will likely carry over into 2013, as more cities and towns hover on the edge of bankruptcy. As one of the highest gatekeepers in the Senate, he will have lobbyists baying at the fence trying to get at him this next session.

Bob Walsh – He chairs the National Education Association of Rhode Island and is the public face of the state’s strident union contingent. A vocal detractor of pension reform as well as a kingmaker in many General Assembly races, he’ll be looking to expand his bargaining power as the cities of Woonsocket, Pawtucket, and West Warwick head dangerously close to state restructuring. Unions may be in decline across the country, but Walsh punches above his weight class. Expect the NEA to remain a fighting force in Rhode Island for many years due to his leadership.


photo by Jack Newton: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdn/2504556820/